Diana Rivenburgh on the Difference Between Sustainable and Flourishing

Photo of Diana Rivenburgh, author of The New Corporate Facts of LifeThe following is a guest post from Diana Rivenburgh, author of The New Corporate Facts of Life: Rethink Your Business to Transform Today’s Challenges Into Tomorrow’s Profits, about the lessons from her mentor for creating a flourishing business.

Imagine someone asks you about your marriage, and you say it’s sustainable.  Wouldn’t you rather say that it’s flourishing?  What if we experience this same feeling through our work?  Imagine working for an organization with an innovative, collaborative, high-performance culture. This analogy comparing marriage to business came from Dr. Chris Laszlo, associate professor at Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University (CWRU).  As we chatted over a cappuccino, I felt as I often did when I spoke with Chris – intrigued, validated, and energized about future possibilities for the work we do.

Dr. Laszlo, one of my professors when I attended graduate school at CWRU, and a prominent thought leader in the sustainability field, had just finished facilitating a session with a group of leaders from large, global companies stretching across sectors ranging from technology to consumer products.  He told me about the baffled looks on the faces of this group of sustainability executives as he told them that sustainable development was rapidly becoming the old model.

Companies should instead be striving to go beyond simply being sustainable, to build organizations that prosper and flourish.  Consider the difference between the two.  Being more sustainable often equates to doing less harm, with the ultimate goal of taking no more from the earth or society than we can return.  Flourishing encourages organizations to thrive while solving some of society’s greatest challenges.

Dr. Laszlo described this concept in the June 2012 Journal of Corporate Citizenship article he co-authored, “Flourishing:  A Vision for Business and the World.”  Many efforts organizations make to achieve sustainability goals would yield greater results if people, teams and entire organizations and systems regularly took steps to reflect and look beyond mere operational actions to the perspectives and behaviors of people.   In another article in the same issue, “Mirror Flourishing and the Positive Psychology of Sustainability+”, David Cooperrider and Ron Fry, also professors at CWRU, describe the connection between a flourishing workplace and a company’s efforts to create a more sustainable future.  Sustainability has not only been one of the greatest drivers of innovation for the 21st century, it has also provided a wealth of opportunities for learning and development.

Just about every company today seeks ways to become more socially and environmentally responsible.  They discover the many ways that strengthening business and building a better world go hand in hand. We spend most of our waking hours at work.  Consider what it feels like to work for an organization achieving profitable, responsible growth.   When we engage in meaningful, interesting work, we tap into our passion and energy.  Harnessing these positive forces leads to thriving, resilient, restorative organizations.

Flourishing companies aren’t blissful nirvana enterprises.  These organizations experience their fair share of challenges, demands and setbacks.  The difference lies in how they view, respond to and recover from negative, challenging circumstances.  Rather than becoming mired in what’s wrong, flourishing companies uncover and harness strengths and aspirations.  Employees bring their best to work, constantly seeking new learning and greater innovation.  Talented people compete to work there. Stakeholders in and out of the organization collaborate to redefine businesses and even entire industries. People scoff at incremental change, reaching instead for transformation.  Rather than myopically chasing quarterly profits, they lead for long-term prosperity.

Working for a flourishing enterprise comes with its share of challenges.  Those stubbornly clinging to the status quo should look elsewhere for employment.  These organizations will spit out a toxic leader as if rejecting a bad organ.  People who don’t like working collaboratively with others need not apply.

As with just about any organizational or social change, flourishing starts with leadership.  Dr. Laszlo put it this way: “Flourishing leaders create flourishing companies, which in turn foster a flourishing world. “  How do we create these leaders?  First, find those who already exist and help them do their best work and coach others to lead.  Foster cultures of engagement, innovation, collaboration, respect and ethical values.  Build health and wellbeing into the organization.  This doesn’t mean putting in a medical insurance plan and a gym.  Organizations that foster well being encourage people to be their best by taking care of themselves physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually.  People with well-balanced, healthy lifestyles make better decisions, are more productive, and build better relationships, leading to stronger results.

Jacket image, The New Corporate Facts of Life by Diana RivenburghFind those moments of positive energy, meaning and innovation in your organization and fan the flames to spread the fire to others.  Promote leaders who bring their best selves to work and bring out the best in others.  Dig deep to bring your whole self to your organization.

Diana Rivenburgh is CEO and President of Strategic Imperatives, Inc., a global consulting firm that helps clients create sustainable, profitable competitive advantage. Her clients include AkzoNobel, Novo Nordisk, Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group, and Verint.

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